With the conclusion of the 2018 NHL draft, the Chicago Blackhawks geared up for their future. Despite the need for present-day defensemen, the team used their two first-round draft picks on blue liners. Over the past two years, the Blackhawks have taken four defensemen in the first two rounds, and all of them look promising.
Even though Chicago still has Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of them have showed signs of declining. Anyone who watched the team last year could tell that the defense was an absolute disaster. They have a bunch of unproven talent, with few projecting to be top-4 defensemen, something that the team desperately needs if they want to continue to compete. While the present defense is worrisome, the future is looking bright.
It all starts with Henri Jokiharju. The team’s first-round draft pick from 2017, Jokiharju, a right-handed shot, might have a chance to crack the opening day roster. Still only 19-years-old, the Blackhawks current number one defensive prospect has been nothing but exceptional in his growth. Expected to carve out a top-4 role with the team, Jokiharju has already signed an entry-level contract with Chicago and isn’t that far off from joining the team full time.
There’s plenty to love about Jokiharju. He’s a quick and offensive-minded blue liner with exceptional puck handling skills. After having a productive 2016-17 season with the Portland Winterhawks, Chicago wanted to see him take it to the next level. He didn’t disappoint. After posting 48 points in 71 games (nine goals, 39 assists) during that 16-17 season, he exploded for 71 points in 63 games (12 goals, 59 assists).
There is some concerns about whether or not he can be sent to the American Hockey League for some seasoning, but that should be resolved before training camp starts. Either way, fans are going to see Jokiharju in a Blackhawks sweater relatively soon.
The team’s second-round selection in 2017 could be joining Chicago after the 2018-19 season. Ian Mitchell, a right-handed shot, owns similar qualities to Jokiharju. Both are mobile and puck-moving defensemen with a mind for offense. Mitchell showed that as a freshman at the University of Denver. He placed third among freshmen defensemen with nearly .75 points per game, finishing with 30 points (two goals, 28 assists). However, 19 of them came on the power play, which proves he can quarterback with a man advantage, something Chicago struggled with.
Mitchell is going back to Denver for his sophomore season, and is widely expected to to be the team’s “go-to” guy. Scott Powers of The Athletic said it wouldn’t be surprising if Mitchell signed with the Blackhawks following his sophomore season. He formed an elite pairing with Blake Hillman, also a Blackhawks prospect, and has taken strides in his defensive duties. While there is still room for improvement, Mitchell is turning out to be a top-prospect, and could make other teams regret passing over him.
Adam Boqvist, Chicago’s first-round draft pick for 2018, was one of the highly-talked about defensive draftees in the first round. He was also one of the the youngest — he doesn’t turn 18 until August — but don’t let his age fool you. Boqvist, a right-handed shot, was rated as one of the top European skaters, and is ranked only behind Rasmus Dahlin for defensemen. He’s a highly-regarded player with fantastic vision and great puck handling skills.
He’s another offensive-minded defenseman, with 24 points (14 goals, 10 assists) in 25 games with Sweden’s J20 SuperElit team. His defense is a little concerning, but it’s a common theme among young blue liners. That isn’t to say that he will become a fantastic shutdown defenseman, but it will be more than enough to stifle some NHL opponents. Boqvist was given high remarks and is being compared to Erik Karlsson. That’s phenomenal to hear for Blackhawks fans, but they are going to have to wait.
During the draft combine, Boqvist admitted that he was “two or three years” away from the NHL. It’s a common theme for defensemen to take longer to develop as opposed to forwards. However, the wait is going to be worth it, especially if Boqvist can hit all of his comparisons.
The Blackhawks kept their other first-round pick (acquired in the Ryan Hartman deal) and they used it to take one more defenseman. With the 27th overall pick, they took Nicolas Beaudin, a left-handed shot from the QMJHL. According to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, he has a high ceiling and the Blackhawks were high on him to start. Rated as the 57th overall prospect from Corey Pronman, Beaudin is another offensive-minded blue liner.
His stats speak for himself. Out of 68 games played, he produced 69 points (12 goals, 57 assists), and can quarterback a power play like anyone else. A trend that Beaudin and Boqvist share is that they have great vision and can make dynamic plays with the puck. He’s a little smaller, coming in at just under 6’0, but displays better-than-average skating skills. He will need to get a little stronger if he is going to thrive in the NHL, but the potential is there.
Finally, Chicago still has Gustav Forsling. Only 22-years-old, Forsling still has a high ceiling. A left-handed shot, he showed some of his potential during a brief stretch of time with the Blackhawks last season, forming part of a “shutdown” line. However, he was sent down in January, where he was able to gain some valuable experience and confidence.
What helps out Forsling is the fact that he is a left-handed defenseman. While three out of the four defensemen mentioned above were right-handed shots, there aren’t many top-4 potential left-handed defenseman in the Blackhawks system. Forsling is ranked as the highest, according to Powers. He also points out that Forsling still has plenty of tools that prove he has the potential for a top-4 spot, and that it takes time for them to develop. Hell, Keith needed over 150 AHL games before he received his shot with the Blackhawks, and look how he turned out.
Put it simply, the Blackhawks have a farm system that is absolutely stocked with defensemen. Yes, not all of these players are going to hit their ceiling, and they could be busts, but the more high-impact players the team has, the better their future looks. If all three of their right-handed shots turn out, it could lead to one of them playing on his off-side. It worked out decently for the Blackhawks this past season, at least numbers-wise, so why couldn’t it work out again?
The present might be dreadful, but the future is looking bright. Could this be the next core that leads to more Blackhawks championships? Only time will tell.